Today we will do a sort of overview of bolt action rifles. I will discuss their strengths and weaknesses in general and also delve into some specific models. This will not be all encompassing in nature and will be relatively brief when discussing military surplus bolt action rifles. My knowledge and interests do not lend me to going into depth. Also I just don’t see a point in it considering there are multiple books written about different variations of specific rifles.
First of all we will look on the most basic level at what bolt action rifles are. Bolt action rifles are rifles where the bolt is manually cycled for each shot. Cycling the bolt is typically done by a small handle attached to the bolt. When the bolt is cycled it ejects the spent casing, grabs a new round from the magazine, loads the round and cocks the rifle. Magazines are usually a fixed, internal box though some are removable. Bolt action rifles are almost all very similar in nature and most use a Mauser design from the late 19th century.
There are two real roles I see bolt action rifles filling for modern defensive shooters (versus collectors or hobbyists) and survivalists. Those roles are as a precision mid to long distance rifle and as a low cost rifle. They are also useful for hunting in general and particularly as a platform for powerful dangerous game rounds but that outside of the scope of this post.
Bolt action rifles are inherently accurate due to a strong action with very minimal movements. More significantly they are the most affordable rifles for precision mid to long distance (lets say 300 meters plus though 400 might be more accurate as it is about when standard semi auto rifles without optics start to fade) rifles available.
Very accurate offerings based on mil spec semi auto rifles are now available but at a steep price. Sure a Knight Armament M-110 or EBR’ed out M1A can be incredibly accurate but those top end precision guns cost more than most used cars. If you can afford to drop 2k on a rifle and 1k plus on an optic then good for you but for most folks that is a non starter.
However don’t despair you can get a decent rifle and scope combination for a few hundred dollars and a pretty good one for several hundred. These rifles have been made by a variety of manufacturers in variations and calibers too numerous to list. For the sake of discussion let us limit things to that are amply powerful for ‘deer sized game’ and shoot flat and handle wind well enough to be useful at long distances. Being a common caliber guy the logical conclusion is either .308 or 30.06 though if you really want a .300 win mag or a .270 or something else reasonably common (don’t be that guy whose only rifle is a total oddball) then I suppose that is probably fine. The .308 is slightly more inherently accurate (than the 30.06) and available in more interesting bullet/ cartridge offerings which give it an edge; on the other hand in the real shooting world I would say 30.06 is more common and if you need versatility in heavy bullet weights it has an edge.
It is worth talking about accuracy a little bit. I think lots of folks dump a ton of money into a rifle and optic they never use to close to its full potential or put off buying a “precision rifle” because they do not have a couple thousand dollars lying around. For most folks a decent rifle with a decent optic costing $500-800 is all they need. Certainly it is enough to get started. Without starting a flame war or a ton of deliberate thought the consensus seems to be that a rifle/ optic combination needs to be capable of holding about 2moa to be a viable candidate for a “precision rifle”. Now that is not particularly amazing and many rifles can do it. Lots of custom high end jobs can do 1 moa or less. If your goal is to shoot paper or steel a kilometer out and you have thousands of dollars to spend then there are some amazing rifles out there. However for most people’s goals the cost is probably not warranted. Let us look at this; 2 moa would be an eye socket at 100 meters and a head at 250-300 and a center mass shot out to somewhere around 500-600 depending on the target. Most shooters can’t do better than that under ideal conditions, let alone inherently less than desirable field conditions. Given realistic conditions where you may take shots out to say 600 meters a decent rifle/ optic setup and a lot of experience are what you need. Beyond that and it starts being less practical and more for bragging rights by the meter anyway. One viable strategy would be to get a starter setup and down the road if you get serious about it start looking at a better one and sell your old gun or stash it someplace as a backup.
Gabe Suarez’s “Guerilla Sniper” idea/ courses are probably more useful to an average shooter than bench shooting from some super expensive and heavy custom gun. It emphasized mid range shooting under realistic field conditions with pretty normal and common gear.
The best deals are not on tacticool urban swat sniper rifles but on good old generic deer rifles. Pretty much every decent gun shop has a used rack full of these guns often at great deals. I hesitate to get mired in specific manufacturers or models because it really just gets dumb. I will however give the standard advice to stick with common models from major manufacturers. This is for two reasons. First they are much easier to get parts and accessories (like scope mounts or sling swivels or whatever) for and second because they are major manufacturers and common models for a very good reason. Companies don’t stay around for several decades and make hundreds of thousands or millions of a specific model because they suck. I am talking about manufacturers like Winchester, Remington, Ruger, Savage, Weatherby and the like. There are a lot of good viable offerings in used guns and if money is a concern that is a good way to go.
If I was going to buy a new rifle it would be a Savage 110. They are good gun at an affordable price. I don’t mean to boo hoo Remington or Ruger or anybody else as lots of manufacturers make fine guns. It is just that the new Savages offer a lot of good features without frills and fluff at a very competitive price.
As my last thought on “precision rifles” don’t be that guy who buys a nice new rifle and then immediately gets the cheapest piece of junk scope Walmart sells. Personally for distance shooting I have found that optics are at least as important, if not more than, the rifle. Decent rifles are sufficiently mechanically accurate but a scope limits how much of that accuracy the shooter can readily use. In any case buy at least a decent scope like a Bushnell or Nikon. Of course you can always get more by paying more but it is worth it to at least price/ consider some higher end manufacturers like Leupold.
This brings us back to the theme that it is important to consider the cost of fully equipping a weapon. Not just the gun but the gun, optic and ammunition. Caliber comes back around here because some rounds like 300 win mag are pretty expensive. For a typical hunter who shoots maybe 40 rounds a year an extra 5 bucks per box of 20 is not a huge deal. However for a survivalist who wants to stash several hundred rounds or more or a serious shooter who wants to shoot a few cases of ammo a year cost is a significant factor. Remember to consider the cost of an optic in your overall budget. Unlike a defensive rifle where an optic is a luxury that can be purchased later it is pretty much a necessity here. Many of these guns either entirely omit sights or give a crude semi buckhorn which is good out to about 100 meters. I heard once that you should plan to spend about the cost of the gun again on a scope. Personally if given the choice I would rather have a $700 scope on top of a $200 rifle than the opposite.
So in conclusion lots of readily available bolt action rifles will do just fine for “precision work”. If you already have a bolt action rifle in a reasonably flat shooting caliber (not like 45-70 or something else with shotput ballistics) then I would seriously consider just using it. If you want to buy a new rifle the Savage 110 offers a lot of value.
The other real role bolt action rifles have is in the form of old WWI-II era surplus rifles as a low cost budget rifle. To be blunt I have never been a fan of this strategy. If I have to shoot a rifle at somebody I want it to be military pattern and self loading with a detachable box magazine at least until something better is invented then I will try to get one of those. Any argument that a bolt action rifle from 65+ years ago is comparable or in any way equal to an AK or an AR (or whatever) for fighting is a load of hog wash, sorry but it is true.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a deal, Wifey and I are some of the cheapest people you will meet. It is just that to me this is sort of like looking for a bargain on factory second fire extinguishers direct from China or buying a used and beat up looking car seat for kiddo. It is my opinion that there are many places to cut corners but safety and defensive gear are not on the list. [As a general statement I would do some prioritization and maybe sell some unneeded stuff or work more to get the cash to acquire quality gear and weapons. I have done it before and will likely do it again.] However I have a real job that earns a decent income and we live pretty simply so we can put money into things that are important to us now and then. I do recognize it is a lot easier to say “it is worth it” if you have the money.
Between the stagnant wages and rising costs of food, fuel, insurance and about everything else lots of folks are barely treading water. Also if we are being honest lots of folks prioritize other things above getting their selves prepared. Regardless there are certainly some folks who are on permanent disability or who make 23 grand a year and have 6 kids or whatever the situation is. For these folks $300 or whatever is what they can scrape together for a rifle, some ammo and accessories after digging deep and saving.
Enter the military surplus rifle.
These old warhorses are big, heavy and shoot pretty powerful cartridges. Most are about 5 feet long, weight 25 pounds or so (an exaggeration), hold 5 or in the case of the Enfield 10 bullets which are very comparable to the 30.06 and are accurate to as far as you can see and shoot with their iron sights. There are too many variations to discuss fully in a book, let alone a blog post so I am going to zero in on the ones that really fit this specific need.
The most viable option is a Russian Mosin Nagant in 7.62x54R with various Mauser, Enfield and Springfield rifles lurking in the potentially viable category. The reason I have immediately eliminated so many other rifles is that you cannot get widely available affordable ammunition for them, or in some cases ammo period. The pattern seems to be that rifles and ammo are available dirt cheap and everywhere then the cheap ammo is gone and rifles come up piece mil, but more expensively and in lower quality. Ammo is then either entirely unavailable or is darn expensive. A $79 rifle for which ammo is brutally expensive (I have seen a dollar plus a shot in some cases) is OK for a collector but for a person that is seriously short on cash, is relying on that rifle and likes to keep a lot of ammo around / practice regularly that situation obviously will not work.
The reason the Mosin Nagant is the obvious choice is that the rifles are readily affordable and ammunition is available and cheap. Without being up on the latest prices you can probably get a Mosin Nagant for something around $110-140 delivered and spam cans of 440 rounds of ammo probably run $60ish. Certainly you could have a gun with basic accessories and a reasonable stash of ammo for about $300-400. There is still cheap ammo available and commercially manufactured new ammo to fill gaps which may appear in time albeit at new commercial ammo prices.
Mauser’s are fairly cheap but can have ammunition availability and cost issues. Since they were made and used in numerous calibers by so many countries it is hard to speak about them in generalities. The issue with the other two is cost to equip and or purchase them. Enfield’s are probably the best rifle of the bunch, especially since they have a 10 round detachable magazine. They can still be had at sane ( I would say 200ish on up depending on make/ model/ condition) and .303 ammo is available though it is mostly new commercial manufacture stuff at new commercial manufacture prices. There are some Enfields around in .308 and I am hopefully going to buy one someday, though not really for practical reasons. The Springfield 03 is probably the most expensive of the bunch to purchase and is thus really more of a collector’s item. You will have a hard time touching one for under $350-400 and those are probably going to be “sporterized” which depending on who did it, what they did, and your tastes may or may not be a bad thing. They shoot 30.06 which is still sometimes available surplus and readily available commercially and are very accurate rifles. However the cost of the rifle and ammunition puts it out of the budget of most that choose to go the surplus rifle route.
A Mosin Nagant and a few spam cans of ammo are far better than no rifle or a couple hundred bucks in small bills sitting in a dusty envelope that says FN-FAL (or whatever). If I had to go this route I would put a lot of energy into practicing rapidly cycling the bolt from my shoulder and engaging multiple targets at close to moderate ranges. I would be sure to practice reloading it from stripper clips. Basically you would be taking the CQB lessons that have permeated from .mil to .gov to everybody else in the past decade and apply them as best you can to an old war horse. Also I would want a big old sword bayonet on the thing and a handgun ready as a backup. I would also look hard at getting a pump shotgun to fill in for CQB ranges.
[Despite my strong reservations for these warhorses as a primary defensive tool there are some interesting possibilities here. A rifle you could loan a neighbor or family member or a spare long gun to bury/ hide in the rafters of your cabin set aside for a rainy day. Is it not the rifle I would want to go to war with but as a backup it would be far better than no rifle at all. It would be hard on the budget to go stashing AR’s and AK’s all over the place but at $300 for a Mosin, bare bones accessories and a few spam cans it could be viable. Given the low price point for a Mosin Nagant rifle and some ammo you could easily set aside a couple over time.]
So in closing bolt action rifles can have a legitimate place in a practical shooter or survivalist’s firearms battery for harvesting game, precision shooting or as a budget all around rifle. Also they are fun.